California law defines murder as the “unlawful killing of another human being or fetus with malice aforethought.”
What exactly does that mean? Broadly speaking, if you acted in such a way that the likely result of the action was someone else’s death — and it caused someone’s death — you could be charged with murder.
Murder charges are very serious. If convicted of first-degree murder in California, you could face 25-years-to-life in state prison. Second-degree murder carries a sentence of 15-years-to-life.
If you or someone you love has been accused of murder, it’s important to speak with a skilled murder defense attorney as soon as possible. Defense attorney Robert M. Helfend is a specialist in murder cases, and he is ready to speak with you today. Call Robert M. Helfend at (800) 834-6434.
Understanding murder charges in California
In order to convict someone of murder, a prosecutor must prove that certain facts of the case were true. These are known as the “elements of the crime.” According to California Penal Code 187 PC, murder has three elements:
- The defendant caused the death of another person (or fetus),
- The defendant acted with “malice aforethought,” and
- The defendant killed without lawful excuse or justification.
As we mentioned above, California law divides murder cases into two categories: first-degree murder and second-degree murder. First-degree murder usually applies when any of the following is true of the defendant:
- He/she committed a willful, deliberate and premeditated killing.
- He/she lied in wait to kill the victim.
- He/she tortured the victim during the killing.
- He/she used an explosive, poison, weapon of mass destruction or armor piercing ammunition.
- He/she is guilty of felony murder, which is when someone kills someone else while committing a specific felony.
PC 187 states that second-degree murder applies when the defendant acts with willful disregard for human life but does not act with premeditation. That could include situations like:
- Two people get into a disagreement at a bar. In the heat of the moment, one of the men sucker punches the other person. The hit knocks him to the ground, where he hits his head and dies.
- A person with a history of DUI convictions drives while inebriated and causes a crash that kills someone else.
- Street racers are racing on an open road. As someone is lawfully crossing the street at a crosswalk, the racing cars quickly approach on him, striking him and killing him.
Penalties for murder in California
Most cases of first-degree murder are punishable by 25 years to life in California State Prison.
There is a subcategory of first-degree murder known as “first-degree murder with special circumstances” or “capital murder.” These are cases of first-degree murder where:
- The defendant killed more than one victim.
- He/she killed for financial gain.
- He/she killed a witness to prevent them from giving testimony.
- He/she killed a police officer, firefighter, prosecutor, judge, juror or elected official.
- He/she was convicted of a hate crime — killing someone based on race, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation or nationality.
- The killing was a drive-by shooting.
- The killing was a gang killing.
Capital murder is punishable by either:
- The death penalty. In California, this is done either via lethal gas or intravenous injection of lethal drugs.
- Life in prison without the possibility of parole.
On March 12, 2019, Governor Gavin Newsom announced a temporary moratorium on executions. This means that, as long as this moratorium is active, people who have been convicted of capital murder in California will not face the death penalty and instead will be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
For second-degree murder, most cases are punishable by 15 years to life. However, the sentences for second-degree murder rise to 20-years-to life if the defendant shot from a vehicle, intending to injure someone else and up to life without parole if the defendant had previously been convicted of murder.
On top of the prison sentences for murder, the court can also impose additional penalties depending on the facts of the case:
- Fines of up to $10,000
- A “strike,” pursuant to California’s Three Strikes Law
- Restitution to the victim
- Loss of gun rights
- Sentencing enhancements if a firearm was used in the murder, or if the killing was game related.
Defenses against murder charges in California
Murder charges are serious. If you or someone you love is facing charges for murder, what happens from here can change the course of your life. This can be a difficult and anxious time, but take heart in knowing that there is hope.
There are many possible defenses that can be used in murder cases, and your attorney will tailor a defense strategy around the facts and evidence in your case. This can include defense strategies like:
- Self defense – California is both a “Stand Your Ground” and a “Castle Doctrine” state. That means that whether at home or outside, you are under no duty to retreat if you feel like your or someone else’s safety is in danger. You have a right to defend yourself.
- Accident – If you were engaged in normal, lawful activity at the time of the other person’s death and didn’t intend to harm them, that is not murder. It’s simply an accident.
- Illegal search and seizure – Your Fourth Amendment Right protects you from illegal search and seizure. If authorities didn’t follow the law when gathering evidence, it can be removed from the case.
- False or coerced confession – The police are intimidating, and they have a long and well-documented track record of forcing people to confess for a crime they didn’t do.
- Mistaken identity – Eyewitnesses are unreliable, and maybe the situation could’ve been a case of “wrong place at the wrong time.”
- Insanity – These are situations where the defendant could not understand the nature of what they did and couldn’t distinguish right from wrong.
If there is clear and valid evidence that a person was responsible for someone else’s death, it might not be possible to see charges dropped entirely.
However, charges can be significantly reduced. Prosecutors often pursue the most serious charges early on in a case, and they do it to intimidate the defendant into a pleading guilty to avoid a trial. This is where it is so helpful to lean on your attorney’s expertise to understand the options ahead of you and what to expect.
When selecting your legal representation, look for an attorney with an extensive case history in homicides. An attorney who has “been there and done that” will have a great level of expertise that other defense attorneys don’t offer. They will have deeper connections with judges and prosecutors in the area. They will represent you more confidently, and most importantly, they’ll communicate more effectively to keep you informed and ease your anxiety throughout the process.
Criminal defense attorney Robert M. Helfend is a specialist in murder cases, serving the Los Angeles area since 1984. He has recently been honored by his peers for his skill in the courtroom, earning recognition from SuperLawyers, Lead Counsel and the National Trial Lawyers Top 100. Call today for help with your case — (800) 834-6434.